Three change management lessons for CEOs from the #Brexit story, so far

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Whether you are a Leaver or Remainer you will agree, I’m sure, that Brexit is a change management project gone badly wrong.

No side can be happy with its leadership or management. The Brexit Crisis – and a crisis it is – is destined to become the Suez of our time, only worse.

Most historians agree that the core failure in the Suez Crisis was hubris. No one looked at the issues from Nasser’s point of view; Eisenhower was ignored and kept in the dark about the British/French/Israeli deal until it was too late and the campaign was disastrously executed.

But at least the Suez own-goal was scored thousands of miles away. The Brexit process is a hat-trick scored at home.

First, no one checked or cared about all the facts that might impact the outcome. For example, the Brexit leaders appear not to know or care what happened in 1921 between Mr Lloyd George and Mr Collins or its consequences. If they did they would understand why the EU can’t simply “bin the backstop” and if it does what might happen.

Second, they ignored the 70/20/10 rule of change management. This rule of thumb is that 10% of people are usually stars of change and should be celebrated; 20% are resistors and should be ignored, if not sacked. Finally, 70% are on the fence and should be wooed. That’s right, wooed: enticed, incentivised or properly sold. Neither Remain nor Leave campaigns did any wooing. Had they done, the outcome might have been different, either way.

Third, neither side presented a vision for the future around which most people could rally – a shared purpose if you like. That would mean confronting the UK’s past. And that’s a no-go subject. Sooner or later a truth and reconciliation process on this matter is unavoidable.

These three errors were compounded by a refusal to take decisions using good corporate governance codes. The Cabinet was forewarned. The Chilcott Report into Iraq called out the decision-making weaknesses of Mr Blair’s “sofa-style” processes. Lord Faulkner only last week said that full legal advice should have been disclosed.

Mrs May doesn’t appear even to use a sofa. People were forced to the Supreme Court and to Motions of Contempt to get her to share her decision-making. And yet she is praised as “resilient”. Another decent word ruined.

While there’s little you can do to prevent this nightmare ending in a disaster, you can prevent your board from emulating these mistakes in your business. So,

⁃ agree a shared purpose

⁃ use the 70/20/10 rule of change

⁃ allow all directors, especially NEDs, to see all legal advice, in full

Then your board will be in a better position to avoid avoidable crises. The alternative is playing out in front of your eyes. And it’s about to get much, much worse.

Ciarán Fenton

#smallchange consultant

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